In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Brittany Kirk, a family therapist at Cook Children’s, discusses how to have tough conversations about the first day of kindergarten with education reporter Kristen Barton
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For an unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Kristen Barton: Hello, everyone, this is Kristen Barton, an education reporter with the Fort Worth Report. I am here today talking with Brittany Kirk, who is a licensed professional counselor and a family therapist at Cook Children’s, and we will be talking today about the first day of kindergarten and how to make that a bit easier for parents and students.
Brittany used to teach pre-K through fifth grade and was a school counselor. So I think you are more than qualified to discuss this with us. How are you doing today?
Brittany Kirk: I’m great, thanks.
Barton: The first day of kindergarten is a big step for kids, it’s a big milestone. How can parents talk to their kids about starting kindergarten to help with that transition?
Kirk: Well, the unknown can be scary. And so the first thing parents can do is just talk to their children about how they’re feeling. When you are able to talk to your children and validate their feelings, it helps them feel heard and it helps make the unknown a little less scary.
Address any concerns or just beliefs that they may have. And then remind them that they’re going to be in a classroom full of other children who may be feeling the same way. Encourage them to make a friend or help another child who could be having first day jitters, too.
The other thing to remember is just to keep things positive and model desired behaviors. When children see that we’re modeling a safe, secure behavior for them, it reassures them that they’re going to be safe and secure facing the unknown, and they’re more likely to go in with more confidence.
Barton: When you say, ‘validate their concerns,’ let’s say I’m your child, and I say I’m scared to start school tomorrow, what does validating that look like?
Kirk: Letting them know that they feel heard. So, you know, ‘I hear that you’re feeling unsure about this and this is something that is scary for you, tell me more about that.’ Or, ‘Tell me what’s making you feel scared.’ It could be a number of things like, ‘I’m scared that you’re not going to be there to pick me up’ or, ‘I’m scared that I’m not going to know anybody’ or, ‘I’m going to get lost.’
They’re going into a whole new world and learning a whole new set of rules and people and faces and so, again, just the unknown and a lot of times not knowing what to expect, just like adults, when we walk into new situations, it can be scary. Helping our children just feel safe and feel validated or feel like they’re understood can be a huge game changer for them.
Barton: On the flip side of that, what advice do you have for parents? Because this can be kind of a hard time to let their babies go.
Kirk: Absolutely. Honestly, kids are very honest with us. They can pick up on when we’re trying to sugarcoat something or we’re doing something that’s too make believe. Being vulnerable and honest with our kids, sharing a story about a time that maybe you went through something as a parent that was a first for you, and how you may have been fearful or scared and how you overcame it. Again, modeling that behavior, modeling how you want them to feel going into a new situation.
And partnering with your child’s school is super important. The more that you can partner and build a good foundational relationship with your child’s teacher and with the school and any of the stakeholders in your child’s education will render good results for a great school year. When we all have a shared vested interest in our children’s education, they’re more likely to be successful. So partnering with your child’s school is huge. It also gives the school insight that you’re available and that you are invested in your child and that you’re going to be supportive of them too.
And then finally, connecting with friends or other parents who have shared experiences with your kids starting school for the first day. Just having a support person of your own. Sometimes, our kids adjust way quicker and way better than we think they’re going to. They adjust to new situations and they’re really resilient and very quick to be more comfortable with something than we are. It’s the reason that parents get emotional. When you can just have a support person to talk to about that, that will help again, model those desired behaviors for your kids, show positivity, and just have someone to lean on for support.
Barton: And what advice do you have for teachers in helping parents navigate this?
Kirk: Teachers are a very big part of that transition. When I was a teacher, I would often say that “You guys are my kids, too,” because they’re with us. For so, so long, they’re with teachers for a huge part of the day.
Again, back to the same thing that the parents do, validating those feelings. We’re going to have these little beings in our classrooms with huge emotions and huge feelings. The more that we can be relatable and reassuring to them, by engaging them in activities promoting inclusivity, decreasing the downtime in your classroom — if you keep students active and busy, leaving little time for them to sit and think about their emotions or to overthink their emotions is one way to kind of help keep some distractions in place. Students probably will get stuck in those feelings and so if a child does get stuck, you can create a safe place or a sensory corner in your classroom to have them to decompress or be able to self regulate those emotions. You can do an activity where they draw a picture or write a letter to their caregiver, letting them know how they’re feeling. And then finally, you know, the biggest thing with school is structure safety and security. Kids thrive in structure, they thrive when they feel safe and secure. And so whatever it is that you can do to reach your students to create a safe and secure environment will again promote success in your classroom and with your students.
Barton: Great, is there any other advice or anything else you’d like to share on this topic?
Kirk: No, I’m just wishing everyone a great and happy school year. I hope everyone has a smooth start to their year and we will be thinking of all the teachers and parents and our kids as they start back.
Barton: Well, thank you so much for chatting with us about this. I really appreciate it.
Kirk: Thank you for having me.
Barton: And if any of the readers have a topic they would like to know more about or for a reporter to have a conversation with someone, you can email any of our reporters or email email@example.com. You can also reach us on any of our social media channels. Thank you.
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.